Thursday, 24 May 2012

Dinner and a Movie

Dark Shadows, Dark Dinner
When: May 2012
Where: Imli (SoHo) and Empire Leicester Square

Dinner and a movie, for me two of the things that make my world go around.  If I were to make a film it would be in the style of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.  This night out was a way to escape the dreaded nail biting Champions League Final.  Last time in 2008 I shouldn't have been watching, we should have been out doing dinner but the Roman weather forced us to stay in the hotel and everyone suffered...  This time round it was dinner and a movie, two of my favourite things to enjoy and then I could check the scores at the end of the film and celebrate or commiserate depending on the result.  Things started off well as the bus got us to the West End in record time.  Our driver was not a patient man and beeped and swerved his away through town taking no prisoners, it was just like being in India all over again but this time with a little more restraint on the horn.  This set us up nicely for Imli, a modern Indian restaurant.  I really like Indian food and as my partner had been before and quite liked it my expectations were fairly high.  However, our first problem was that she liked the set meals but these were only on at lunch time and we had arrived in the evening.  Secondly our friend booked online and after looking online I noticed you could get a free dessert if you booked online, she hadn't noticed...  Oh well, things can only get better.

We were shown to a nice quiet and decent sized table at the back corner of the restaurant and ordered some drinks.  One of our friends seems to have got into cocktails which is nice as I'm now not the only one to order an alcoholic drink when we go out.  I wasn't feeling too hungry so I shared the Tandoori Mixed Grill  -  Chicken, Fish, Lamb and Paneer with Dal and Naan Bread. This looked like being more than enough and it was.  I love good tandoori food and after having an amazing Tandoori meal in Orchha in India I am hooked for life.  Our friends ordered a mix of dishes from the menu.  Service was good and our waiter was trying hard with some "money saving" upsells.  The food arrived and I was a little disappointed, I think in part because my eyes are greedier than my stomach.  We had one piece of each of the dishes and a bowl of thinish and difficult to share Dal.  The lamb was very good, but was really only a bite as it was a tandoori lamb chop.  The chicken was bland and only just cooked, the paneer was ok, the bread was ok and the dal was ok.  I don't really eat fish but my partner enjoyed it.  The meal was at least filling and we washed it down with some coffees and Masala Chai.  I think I've now become a little stuck in my ways with Indian food.  I find a place I like and keep coming back, again and again and again...  It will take something special to prise me away from the Star Of Bombay on Westbourne Grove or Nayaab off Parsons Green.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012)
It seems these days every Tim Burton film is the same with Johnny Depp playing some kind of ageless monster trying to claw back a life that cannot be lived anymore.  Sometimes you have to grow up and move on, Scorsese manages this in Hugo, albeit leaving America to do so as we watch someone who has hit rock bottom get built up and given one last day of glory, rather than be spat out by the American Dream gone bad.  Anyway, getting back to Burton, at his best his creepy Depp led films are fantastic pieces of fantasy with amazing performances and a believable world portrayed well enough for you to completely suspend your disbelief.  At worst there's Alice in Wonderland, worse than that is Alice in Wonderland in 3D...

Dark Shadows is a simple love story with a nice contrast in the narrative.  The Collins family escape Victorian England for a better life in the new world where they see their fishing business go from strength to strength.  The young Barnabas will one day inherit the family fortune which is not only the business but the town where they landed which is named Collinstown in their honour and the large family house filled with wealth and secret passages.  However, life is not so easy as Barnabas has an affair with Angelique who's family are servants to the Collins family.  Barnabas likes her body but doesn't love her as a person and in a fit of jealousy she turns to magic forcing Josette, his wife to be to commit suicide and turns him into a vampire who is locked away in a coffin as a freak of nature.

Time passes and Barnabas is dug up and is very much alive but he does not fit well with the modern world.  He fights to restore his family to their former glory but finds Angelique through various guises has made sure to do everything in her power to thwart the Collins family and their business out of revenge.  The two battle it out as Barnabas wants to move on in his personal life whilst rebuilding his family to what it used to be and find true love again and Angelique who whilst moving on professionally has not moved on personally and is still, 200 years later unable to accept that Barnabas might want to have sex with her but doesn't love her.

History repeats itself but this time Barnabas is ready and although he doesn't manage to stop his new love plunging off the cliff, she becomes a vampire and they live quirkily ever after whilst Angelique ends up a broken woman (literally).  Although it may not be the greatest story of all time the acting and casting in Dark Shadows is fantastic and for me made it all worth while.  It was nice for the day to finish on a high.  An enjoyable night at the movies followed by a Champions League victory on my phone to read about on the journey home, whilst my ears rung from a THX induced evening.

BBC Studio Tour

This is the BBC!
When: April 2012
Where:  BBC Television Centre, White City
Sometimes it's easy to forget about the things close to home and as the old song goes, "You don't know what you got till it's gone".  With that in mind we decided to book a tour of BBC's Television Centre before it is sold off and possibly shut down.  On a rainy afternoon we made the short journey to White City and began the tour.  I was looking forward to see a live, living, breathing workplace filled to the brim with memories and perhaps a show being filmed.  We were one of the last to arrive at the reception area where we were warmly greeted and handed our BBC Tours identity tag.  We were met by two bright young guides who led us back out into the rain to go through security and then up to a nice little photo op if you are a fan of either Dr. Who of The Voice. I am not a fan of either but it was still a good ice breaker.

Our first stop proper was the news room area.  Most of the filming is no longer done in London but is instead done in Manchester and the majority of the journalists don't work in the news room at the weekends as news rarely breaks at the weekend (mostly it's just sports headlines like Chelsea spanking QPR - YAY!) I did enjoy watching the news tickers they had and I was also unaware that the BBC is the largest news gathering agency in the world ahead of CNN and Reuters.  It was also interesting to know that the BBC only used fully paid up journalists for their news shows rather than TV presenters and this meant that those who read the news could also interview (or often interrogate) their guests to a high and critical standard that was not possible in the past.

We then walked over to the original main entrance to Television Centre where we learned that the circular design of the building was both to compensate for the odd shape of the land and also that it made it very easy to walk from one studio to the next across the atrium in the middle.  The entrance is a listed building and will be preserved in someway when the building is eventually sold.
After that it was on to an actual studio, this studio was the one used to film Strictly Come Dancing, however on this occasion it was empty.  The most interesting part of this section of the tour was that for reasons of cost they would build the set and dismantle it weekly for this show due to the cost of renting out the studio.  The level of detail that goes into setting up a studio is quite frightening and even as someone who likes to think they know a bit about film and TV, from the lighting, soundproofing, flooring and the reason why the walls are painted black!

It was then time to visit the MOTD studios, except it was just a replica as Match of the Day was now shot at the Manchester studios, you could sit and have your photo taken but it didn't feel quite right to do so with a replica set.  Interestingly it seemed as though Channel 5 now shoots its football show here instead.  In fact from walking around it seemed most of the shows shot here were not for the BBC.

Up next was the weather area, this was actually pretty interesting as the studios for the forecast are fully automated and the presenters are all fully trained meteorologists who write and present their own material.  Also they are standard civil servants rather than private employees of the BBC and have contracts and a working day that reflect this.  The forecasters also work across media (TV, Radio and Online) as well.  We got to watch a forecast being delivered and had a little fun with a green screen!

The penultimate stage of our tour was visiting some of the green rooms or dressing rooms where stars are kept before a show.  There are different types of dressing room depending on the star's status, apparently Prince, Jennifer Lopez and James Brown had some of the most interesting demands.  The stories were more exciting than the dressing rooms which were a little crowded for a group of 20+

The final stage was where we got to see the magic happen, four lucky (or unlucky) souls got to participate in a spot of Weakest Link and a News Broadcast for the rest of us to enjoy and watch.  After this it was time to say our good byes as we exited through the gift shop.  In all a fun but slightly underwhelming way to spend a few hours.  At least there was a trip to Wahaca to follow which as usual did not disappoint.  In all the tour did not quite meet my expectations.  I was hoping to see a little more action, but it seems everyone has moved up to Manchester where the new Media Village is whilst Television Centre was cutting edge in its day, HD, the Internet and 24 hour TV have slowly made it obsolete.  Whilst it was not the most exciting afternoon out ever it was worth it to see what would soon be a piece of history.

Frisco Food

Dining Delights in San Francisco
When: April 2012
Where: SF, California

Somehow food keeps tasting better away from home and this trip was no exception.  Following on from my top five ingredients for a good meal out, there were a couple of places from our recent trip to San Francisco that fit the bill of getting my ingredients just right.  Best of all the first two were a five minute walk from one another!  Thanks to the Internet it seems the days of needing a guide book for visiting the USA are well and truly numbered with Trip Advisor, Flyertalk and Chowhound all giving a range of bespoke and up to the minute options that guide books cannot compete with.

Bodega Bistro

This Vietnamese restaurant is located on Larkin and Eddy and from the outside doesn't look overly enticing.  However, once through the doors it became evident we were on to a winner.  Service was warm and friendly and seemed to be even warmer and friendly to the regulars.  My beer was icy cold as was the table water, just the way I like it.  The speciality here is Pho, which is a noodle soup with various toppings.  We started off with some spring rolls and then I went for the Pho Bodega sur Demande - rare steak fillet slices, well-done brisket and beef meatball combination in a rice noodle soup.  This was both refreshing and filling and by the end I was too stuffed to think about dessert.  I found this place on Chowhound and I certainly would not have found it on my own with it being tucked away from the main tourist areas of San Francisco.  This meal was a great start to the trip, perfect company and a relaxed atmosphere.  The food was tasty and slightly exotic, fitting perfectly with being on holiday and the service to go with it was just right.  Bodega Bistro was also a bit of a bargain and quality wise was at worst on par with other reasonably priced restaurants and made a nice change of emphasis from the usual Chinese/Japanese Asian food that we normally have back home in the UK.

Bodega Bistro 607 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA.

Brenda's French Soulfood

Just across the road from Bodega Bistro lies Brenda's French Soulfood restaurant.  Another reasonably priced restaurant serving food that is not often seen in the UK.  We ate here for brunch on our first morning in San Francisco and it was truly amazing.  There was a small queue and to save your place in line you write your name and number of guests on the chalkboard by the door and wait for a free table.  Service felt warm and welcoming to the first time visitor as well as the regulars and we were soon sat down with menus and coffee. I went with the Egg & Bacon Tartine:  Bacon, scrambled eggs, gruyère & tomato-bacon relish on toasted french roll, with choice of grits or hash.  I ordered the hash but I ended up with the grits.  The food was really, really good and probably the most interesting of the many cooked breakfasts we had on this trip.  I still don't know what to make of grits, they feel/taste like mashed potato meets rice pudding and I ended up layering mine with tomato ketchup.  My partner went with the butter milk pancakes with fruit.  The best tip I can give for eating here is to allow for the fact that the food is tasty and filling, if you come for breakfast you won't want lunch.  You could probably just do brunch here and be full enough to see you through till the end of the day.  I wish I could open a version of Brenda's near me just so I could go whenever I wanted.

Brenda's French Soulfood 625 Polk Street, San Francisco CA.

Pied Piper Bar

At the time this place was a bit of an afterthought and a way of maxing out AMEX's Fine Hotels and Resorts program benefits.  The reviews were pretty mixed but the gamble paid off.  The Pied Piper is located at the Palace Hotel just off the financial district in San Francisco and they looked after us really well, an amazing room upgrade and a lovely breakfast in the beautiful old world Garden Court.  The Palace is famous for  "old world" luxury and is one of the oldest hotels in San Francisco.  The Pied Piper Bar is famous for the multi-million dollar Maxfield Parrish painting that hangs above the bar telling the story of the Pied Piper.  The rest of the bar is all dark wood, low lights and big screen TVs showing sports.  The crowd contrasts as much as the TVs do with the art work, this is my kind of place to sit and have a drink.  Seeing as we had $100 to spend we started with some cocktails which were excellent, fair play to anyone who can blend absinthe and whiskey into a martini glass and make it both refreshing and easy to drink.  As we had spent the last few days getting bloated on the best beef Las Vegas has to offer, it was time for something a little lighter and certainly less rich.  I ended up with a club sandwich which was filled with freshly cooked warm chicken breast, my partner went with the signature Pied Piper salad that was overloaded with King Prawns.  Service was perfectly in tow with the surroundings, casual in conversation but executed with formal precision.  Whilst this may not be to everyone's taste it was the right place at the right time and as we found out the next night that's a really important thing.

The Pied Piper Bar 2 New Montgomery Street  San Francisco, CA 94105, United States

Campton Place Restaurant

Just up the road from the Palace we spent our last night at the Taj Campton Place for a luxurious end to our trip.  The problem with that is that the more you spend the higher the expectations.  Campton Place recently won its first Michelin star, so added to that was the expectation that the food would be good too.  Service here is very formal, though the staff try to enjoy themselves and bring some personality to their work, but with a little fine tuning they could get the balance perfect, though maybe this is hard given the type of restaurant and the ever-changing clientèle.  We ate here for breakfast and dinner.  The sad thing to see was that the restaurant was barely half full on the Saturday night we were there.  I imagine this is due to the wealth of dining options in San Francisco.  I think the issue I have with my limited experience of higher end restaurants is that many aim for perfection and don't quite make it with every aspect.  There normally seems to be one course that's not quite right, or the atmosphere of the place that takes something that would have been perfectly fine in a slightly cheaper restaurant and ends up amplifying the imperfections.  Unusually it was not the starter that was the let down here.  My spicy lentil soup with crab was delicious, lightly spicy but not so much as to overpower the crab.  My rabbit three ways was good, though the rack of rabbit looked like it could have been cooked a little longer and I actually enjoyed the rabbit kidneys, which I was not expecting.  I cannot remember my dessert, it was good and it was not chocolate which is rare for me, but it doesn't stick in the mind like the pistachio soufflé I had at Castle Terrace in Edinburgh that nearly caused a "wafer thin mint" style explosion from over-eating.

Breakfast the next morning was great.  The service was a little over the top but the food was first rate.  Fresh juice, fresh coffee and a really tasty cooked breakfast, just far too much of it.  It was a shame there was not British style bacon, I really don't go for the American bacon the same way that I like bacon back at home.  In all for the money spent, our meal at the Taj wasn't quite worth it, though I'm sure for others it would be. Perhaps trying the tasting menu or getting a special offer which from reading online seems like something they do from time to time would be the way to go.

Campton Place 340 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California 94108, U.S.A.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Perfect Meal?

Menu CoverThe Perfect Meal? - Le 7 
When - March 2012
Where - Le 7, Valence, France

There are a number of ingredients to my perfect meal but it is rare they all come together at the same time.  However, a few months ago whilst in France that was just the case.  We were celebrating my girlfriend's birthday with her family.  That meant ingredient one was already here, the right company.  As this was a big birthday we ended up going somewhere a little fancier then we would usually go and it was a really great choice, Le 7.   My second ingredient is of course the right place for the occasion.  Le 7 is famous for being the less costly sister restaurant of the famous three  Michelin star Pic located next door.  A pretty good choice if I may say so!  The third ingredient is service, we were warmly welcomed and shown to our seats, service was friendly, though perhaps a little brisk but it was also flexible enough to accommodate a vegetarian meal for one of our party despite the restaurant not offering one on the menu.  The fourth and often the most important ingredient is the food itself, which I will discuss shortly.  My penultimate ingredient is value for money, did you get what you pay for?  How did this restaurant compare with others at the same price point?  My final ingredient is how memorable the overall experience was.  Will this meal be forgettable, remembered fondly, or am I hoping to never return again?

Food Menu

Le 7 is a modern French bistro restaurant with tables packed closely together and a fast paced service.  The menu follows the theme of a culinary road trip across France from north to south.  After being seated on a nice table in the corner of the dining room we were given some complementary bread in a paper bag, which was very tasty.  After all no good French meal is complete without fresh bread on the side!  We followed the 30 Euro per person three course set menu which we washed down with a bottle of Argentinian Malbec that I sadly forget the name of.  Lunch started off with an amuse bouche of bread and hummus which was delicious. We then moved on to our starter of Pumpkin Soup with Coffee.  

Bread and Houmous

The soup was smooth and velvety with a nice hint of coffee running through it, everything was just right with this course.

Pumpkin Soup with Coffee

To follow the soup I had the Shoulder of Lamb with Seasonal Vegetables.  The lamb was soft, tender and slightly pink in the centre.  The vegetables were finely diced and melted magnificently in the mouth together with sauce.  There were some quiet complaints that the sauce was a touch too salty, but for me it was perfect. 

Shoulder of Lamb with Seasonal Vegetables

After that perfect main I had a feeling of contentment inside.  We had a short rest from the food and then it was time for dessert.  I went with the Chocolate Finger which was a sweet, dark, reinvention of the Black Forest Gateaux with a scoop of refreshing raspberry sorbet served on the side.

Chocolate Finger

All good things must come to an end and lunch was sadly over. I have to say all the ingredients had mixed together nicely.  We had good company and a great place for this special occasion.  Service was a little brisk but it did not hamper our lunch one bit.  The value for money was excellent, it's very easy to spend £20-£25 per person on lunch/dinner and end up with an underwhelming meal.  At Le 7  the food was great across each course and I only wish I could eat this well and at this price so close to home here in London, hopefully my quest will not be in vain!  I won't forget this meal any time soon and hopefully we can go back again.  If you ever happen to be in this part of France than a visit to Le 7 should certainly be added to your itinerary, unless of course you can afford the three star restaurant next door!

Pic Valence - 285 avenue Victor Hugo, 26000 Valence - Drome
              Tel. +33 4 75 44 15 32